UT overcomes curious moves

Tennessee turned a rout into thriller with some curious decision making in the final six minutes at Mississippi State.

But the bottom line: The Vols withstood a furious rally by the Bulldogs and found a way to win Saturday night in Starkville, 76-71.

It shouldn't have been that close. It wouldn't have been that close if the Vols hadn't curiously gone to a zone defense and left one of its worst foul shooters in the game down the stretch.

Nevertheless, Tennessee's 17-point lead with just over six minutes left was too much for the gritty Bulldogs to overcome.

The Vols were comfortably ahead, 64-47, with 6:26 left after a Duke Crews follow. But then, UT, which had shut down the Bulldogs' attack with a sticky man-to-man defense, went to a zone. At the time, State had made just 3-of-10 from 3-point range.

But UT's zone left open Barry Stewart, who drilled three consecutive open threes, then Jamont Gordon hit three more from long range. Suddenly, a 17-point lead had been whittled to six, 73-67.

UT's JaJuan Smith, a good player prone to making questionable decisions, fired up a quick 3 when the clock was an ally. He missed. State got the rebound and Gordon hit one of two free throws. After Tyler Smith was called for traveling, Stewart drained another open trey to make it 73-71 with 39.2 seconds left.

Trying to run the clock, Tennessee, inexplicably, got the ball to Wayne Chism, one of the SEC's worst foul shooters. Chism, who shouldn't have been in the game, missed the front end of a one-and-one.

After a travel by State, UT's Jordan Howell hit one of two foul shots. Gordon then missed a 3 that would have tied the game. Howell got the rebound, was fouled, and hit both free throws to finally seal the deal.

``We came into this game like it was a championship game,'' Howell said. ``We feel like we're a step ahead (in the SEC) now that we've got this one under our belt.''

Howell was upset with himself after missing all three free throw attempts at Alabama. He said he shot 100 free throws the next day to find a groove.

``It feels really good to make free throws down the stretch when we needed it,'' Howell said.

And it feels really good to get another SEC road win. Regardless of whether the SEC is down or not, winning on the road in this conference isn't easy.

Ask Florida, which lost by 19 at Arkansas on Saturday.

Ask Mississippi State, which lost by 20 at Arkansas on Wednesday.

No. 7 Tennessee (19-2) not only moved its record to 6-1 in the SEC, it won a second straight SEC road, having beaten Alabama on Tuesday.

Chris Lofton led the Vols with 20 points, his fourth straight game with 20 or more.

``We jumped on Chris Lofton's back for a little bit,'' Howell said. ``It feels good having Chris going again.''

JaJuan Smith added 15 in 22 minutes.

For State (14-7), Stewart, who is from Shelbyville, Tenn., had 21 points, hitting 6-of-8 from 3-point range. Gordon had 17, 12 in the final seven minutes. Charles Rhodes had another double double – 15 points, 10 rebounds. He added five blocks. Jarvis Varnado, the nation's leading shot blocker, had just two rejections. He added just five points and four rebounds while battling foul trouble.

Pearl felt the defensive job on Gordon was a key to UT's fourth straight win over the Bulldogs.

``We built a wall on Gordon to not let him get to the paint,'' said Pearl, who threw four different defenders on the All-SEC player. ``Jamont Gordon did not have a 2-point basket in the game. The fact we held him to no 2-point baskets was very significant in the end.''

Two other UT keys: Three-point shooting and rebounding. With 10 minutes left, UT had hit 11 of 23 from 3-point range while State was 3-of-10, and UT had 16 offensive rebounds to State's five. The Vols finished with a 10-rebound margin over State.

``That's what we've been focusing on,'' Howell said. ``Defense and rebounding win championships. Coach (Bruce) Pearl continues to harp on rebounding and we weren't going to let Rhodes and Varnado beat us on the boards.''

Tennessee hit 41 percent from the field against the No. 2 defense in the nation, which was allowing foes to hit 36 percent. And UT scored 76 points against a team allowing 60.

``You really can't complain too much,'' Pearl said. ``We did enough good things to beat a good team.''

Against a stout defense, UT made 12-of-28 from 3-point range, with Tyler Smith hitting two key threes against Varnado, who was reluctant to come outside to guard UT's talented forward.

``That right there made a huge difference,'' Pearl said. ``The scouting report is, he can't shoot it. Then bang, bang.''

But, Pearl added: ``We've got to score around the bucket.''

UT missed a lot of inside shots, and the Bulldogs contributed to some indecision by blocking 10 shots.

But, as Pearl said, the Vols did enough good things to win. They outrebounded State by 10. They hit key threes. And they held Gordon in check for 33 minutes.

That was enough for Tennessee to post a third SEC road win this season – and take over first place overall in the SEC.

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